By Shruthi Raman
India, a land with a variety of cultures and food systems, has failed to ensure its children are provided with all the necessary nutrients. It should not come as a shock that 38.4% of children under the age of five are stunted, 35.8% are underweight and 21% are wasted. India is placed at 94th position among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index Report, 2020 which is far behind its neighbouring countries. About 53% of children below five are not growing well in India which means that they are stunted, wasted or overweight or a combination of all of these.
The National Food Security Act passed in 2013 aims to provide food and nutritional security in the human life cycle approach, by ensuring access to adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices to people to live a life of dignity. In order to achieve this aim, the act has brought under its purview the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). ICDS covers children below 6 years along with pregnant women, lactating mothers and adolescent girls through Anganwadi. MDMS is through schools and is for children in the age group of 6 to 14 years.
Budgets for children
To ensure the success of these schemes and effective implementation of the National Food Security Act, the state has to ensure that sufficient resources are available and are put to use effectively. But the situation is bleak as the Centre has continued to allocate lesser amounts to children which is affecting the development and education sectors under which ICDS and MDMS are placed. This is also at a time when people are struggling to cope with the pandemic and the measures taken by the government to control its spread. With Anganwadis and schools closed, which are the service delivery systems for ICDS and MDMS respectively, children who are dependent on these schemes for their nutritional needs are left in a lurch.
The overall share for children in the central Budget has dropped from 3.16% in 2020-21 to 2.46% in 2021-22, a decline of 0.7 percentage points. This is despite the increase in the number of schemes and programmes from 96 in 2020-21 to 121 in 2021-22.
Budgets for increasing the nutrition component
In the 2021-22 budget, ICDS is merged with PoshanAbhiyan (National Nutrition Mission) and the budget allocated is less than what was allocated to ICDS alone in 2020-21. This is despite the Supreme Court’s order in a suo moto writ petition highlighting that non-supply of nutritional food to children and lactating mothers may lead to large-scale malnutrition. In the same order, the apex court directed all the states to come up with a uniform policy to ensure that nutritious food is provided to children and lactating mothers while preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The resource allocated to MDMS has seen a dip in 2015-16 with a gradual increase thereafter. Allocation to mid-day meals has been reduced by 10.8% in comparison to the revised estimates of 2020-21. There should be a focus on the nutritional quality of meals provided. A rough calculation from the 2021-22 budget estimates and the population projections for 2021 of children aged between 5 and 19 years shows that per child budget is Rs. 1050 only for one full academic year. This amount is grossly insufficient to ensure nutritious food is provided to children through schools.
Need for more resources
It is to be noted that the government has failed to view the importance of allocating resources for the implementation of ICDS and MDMS even when the Minister for MHRD stated on the floor of the Lok Sabha in response to a question in November 2019 that “only 9% children get nutritious food”. The situation has been downplayed and there are efforts to shift the onus as seen in the report presented to Rajya Sabha on March 9, 2018, in which MHRD noted that lack of community participation is one of the reasons for inadequate implementation of MDMS.
Overcoming implementation challenges require adequate budgetary resources. While an absolute sum of Rs 36,500 crore was announced for ‘nutrition-related programmes’ in the Union Budget of 2020-21, it translated into a mere 3.5 and 1.4% increase in Anganwadi services and National Health Mission respectively and no increase in MDMS allocations whatsoever. In fact, the amount actually allocated for a significant scheme like ICDS has fallen short of the demanded sum by the Ministry of Women and Child Development by 23% in 2018-19 and 17 per cent in 2020-21.
The need for more resources for nutrition has also been echoed by the 15th Finance Commission with its recommendation of an additional nutrition grant for states to the tune of Rs 7,735 crore in 2020-21. Such a trend of underfunding for nutrition needs to be reversed in the upcoming budget to effectively tide over the additional needs of the most vulnerable children at this hour of crisis. Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability’s analysis finds that some of the particular areas which urgently seek higher allocations are extending the coverage of MDM to include breakfast for school going children as per the recommendations of the National Education Policy, filling up of vacancies in supervisory positions for Anganwadi services, enhancing remuneration for frontline positions of Anganwadi workers, construction of more Anganwadi centres in underserviced urban areas and fortifying food entitlements (at schools or as Take Home Rations) with nutritious options like milk, eggs, fruits etc. There is a need to enhance the allocation of resources which has been reiterated in the advisories by the National Human Rights Commission.
Nutritional standards of children should be enhanced by allocating resources on the basis of recommendations made by committees; framing suitable policies for well thought out schemes; spending allocated resources adequately and ensuring that the benefits reach the rights holders in a timely manner. For a country that boasts of local foods and varied cuisines, ensuring that children gain the necessary and required nutrients should not be a difficult task if all stakeholders put their hearts and efforts into it.
(The writer is Project Coordinator, Centre for Child and the Law, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru).